Amid rising concern at human rights in Russia, which recently banned ‘homosexual propaganda’, a rising number of world leaders have said they won’t be going.

US President Barak Obama has not only said he won’t be going, but has nominated two gay athletes to take his place: the Olympic women’s hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow, and tennis legend Billie Jean King. The most senior political figure in the US contingent at Sochi will be Janet Napolitano, a former Homeland Security Secretary who now heads California’s public university system. She is the lowest-ranking US political official to head an Olympic delegation in decades.

In addition, Canada, Germany and France have all said they will not be sending any high ranking officials to the Games. Human rights group Ilga Europe applauded the move, and called on other countries to do the same.

Since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, the Russian government has unleashed a crackdown on civil society, targeting in particular human rights defenders protecting the rights of minority groups. A series of discriminatory and restrictive laws have been introduced which significantly restrict civil society organisations and threatens their existence, such as the treason law, ‘foreign agent’ law, Dima Yakovlev law and the homosexuality anti-propaganda law.

Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of LGBT sports publication, said: ‘The President’s appointment of at least two out LGBT athletes is the perfect move. The selection of Billie Jean King, who has a record of breaking LGBT and gender barriers, is inspired.

‘Obama has shown a longstanding commitment to our community and our issues, and this is just the latest. By sending LGBT athletes – not just supporters but the out athletes themselves – he’s sending a statement about what the United States stands for. It’s far more powerful than even someone from his administration attending. While it won’t have any effect on Russian policy, it is a powerful demonstration of support for LGBT Russians who are under attack. It’s support they will need desperately as Putin continues his crackdown on human rights.’

Gay British paralympian Claire Harvey agreed, saying: ‘It is pleasing to see countries taking a stand and using the opportunity to shine a light on the situation. I love the inspired idea of Obama, rather than going himself, to send a mainly gay delegate group of officials, who will bring with them a natural discussion and unease for the Russian government.

‘I read today that Helen Grant or Maria Miller, both with ministerial responsibilities for sport, may be going from the UK; I would certainly like to volunteer to be in that delegation as the Homophobia & Transphobia in sport ambassador too. I hope other governments follow suit!’

Speaking on CNN International, Billie Jean King told gay Russians that they are not alone. ‘Maybe we should wave rainbow flags or something,’ she commented. ‘As long as we’re not being malicious, we can show our feelings. I’m very proud to go as an athlete, and as a gay woman, I’m thrilled.’

She added, ‘he’s sending a King instead of a president over there.’